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U.S., Mexican Divers Explore Sunken U.S. Navy Brig

July 4, 1990

MEXICO CITY (AP) _ U.S. and Mexican divers joined forces Tuesday to try to uncover historical treasures from a U.S. Navy brig that sank off the coast of Veracruz during the Mexican War.

The Navy brig Somers already holds a place in literary history. On an 1842 trip to Africa its captain hanged three Navy trainees suspected of planning a mutiny. Author Herman Melville based his novella ″Billy Budd, Foretopman″ on the incident.

In 1846, the two-masted wooden sailing ship sank during a squall while helping blockade the port of Veracruz during the war between Mexico and the United States.

San Francisco underwater explorer George Belcher discovered the Somers’ well-preserved remains in June 1986 about five miles off the coast of Veracruz. The ship was partly buried in sand about 110 feet underwater, Belcher said.

″It’s literally a time capsule from its period,″ Belcher said in a telephone interview from Veracruz. ″It has everything a U.S. warship in 1846 would have had on it.″

On a previous dive to the wreck, Belcher said he found swords, pistols, crystal wine glasses and bottles, and at least six of the ship’s 10 cannons.

On Tuesday, a Mexican navy patrol boat carrying a 14-member U.S.-Mexican exploration team headed to the site of the wreck in the Gulf of Mexico.

″This is the first time that the U.S. and Mexican governments have conducted an investigation of a sunken ship together,″ said Mexican Adm. Florencio Aguilar, contacted by telephone in Veracruz.

Belcher and his brother Joel are guiding the team that includes representatives from the Mexican Navy, Mexico’s National Anthropology and Archeology Institute and the U.S. National Park Service.

Team members said they plan to spend six days mapping, drawing, and photographing the wreck, but will not remove any artifacts at this point.

Another dive is planned for May, and exploration could last for years, Belcher said. He is producing a documentary film of the exploration.

The discovery of the wreck set off a claims dispute between Mexican and U.S. authorities, but both sides eventually agreed to the joint exploration.

The Mexican government claims the wreck is the property of Mexico, and constitutes spoils of war.

The wreck is protected under a federal law covering archeological and historical areas and monuments, said Daniel Nahmad, director of the Veracruz Regional Anthropology and Archeology Institute.

″It is in national waters, but the United States considers it a war grave. That’s more or less the argument,″ Nahmad said.

Thirty-two U.S. sailors went down with the ship, said James Delgado, the U.S. National Park Service’s chief maritime historian, who is a member of the exploration team.

A bill is before U.S. Senate that calls for bilateral negotiations to allow the United States to take possession of any artifacts and human remains found on the Somers.

Both sides agreed to the joint exploration project Nov. 28, Belcher said.

″At this point, (the artifacts) certainly belong to the Mexican government,″ Belcher said. ″It is hoped that at some point they might be loaned to the U.S. government.″

The Mexican government is in charge of the exploration, and the National Park Service is representing the U.S. government, because it is the only government branch that has an underwater archeology team, Delgado said.

The Mexican War began in 1846 and was sparked by the U.S. annexation of Texas. U.S. troops led by Gen. Zachary Taylor invaded Mexico, and captured Veracruz in March 1847 and Mexico City in September 1847. The war ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 in which Mexico ceded two-fifths of its territory to the United States, including most of the present southwestern states.

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